Sunday, December 8, 2013

Confronting Our History

12 Years a Slave
Directed by Steve McQueen
Three and One Half Stars
By Rollan Schott

In 1841, a free black man living in New York by the name of Solomon Northup was lured to Washington D.C. by two white men, promising him some good money to be made quickly with his violin. Northup was drugged, kidnapped, and smuggled south to be sold illegally into the slave trade, where he lived for twelve years before finally being returned to his family. During Northup’s time as a slave in the Antebellum South, he observed, as an educated, erudite and thoughtful man, the ways that empathy and compassion and religion and virtually every other facet of human behavior navigated their ways around the racism innate in their culture, the ways that men could be purchased as property, forced to work without pay, and yet spoken to with respect and dignity, the ways that black men could be spoken to with respect and dignity yet still be addressed as that most execrable slur. To reconcile one’s humanity with the needs of an archaic plantation infrastructure, huge concessions were made where they must not have been made: in the realm of human decency.

Steve McQueen is one of the most promising new filmmakers in the business. His “12 Years a Slave”, adapted from Northup’s 1853 memoir of the same name, is a potent evocation of this repulsive display. McQueen’s last film, “Shame”, had a distance and a coldness to it that I felt promised depths that were not there. Here, however, he is closing in on the great film that he is capable of. This is an astonishingly sure-handed director, patient and courageous, willing to leave a man in a noose, struggling to keep his tip-toed footing in the mud, on screen for minute after minute to illustrate a point, willing to defiantly make eye contact with his audience, to challenge our complicity.

This is very much the kind of movie that Oscar falls in love with – competently shot, very well acted, and with a noble liberal message that doesn’t make you think too much. But perhaps that is not fair. Slavery is not something to be pondered so much as evoked and reviled. That it is a great evil is quite cut-and-dry. Very little complexity is needed to illustrate its nuances. But that’s not to say that McQueen does not try. There are a number of distinctly cinematic gimmicks at play here. A startling moment arrives early, when the vile Tibeats (Paul Dano) feverishly chants a wildly racist ditty to a group of newly arrived slaves. Over and over he repeats the chorus, deriving a fetishistic glee from the look of repressed shame on the slaves’ faces. McQueen allows the audio of Tibeats chanting to continue after the scene advances to the plantation owner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) preaching the gospel to his slaves, juxtaposing one over the other. Moments like this are a genuine thrill. McQueen does not inject complexity so much as find clever and inventive ways to illustrate these straightforward ironies.

And one cannot say enough about the strength of these performances. Along with Christopher Nolan and David O. Russell, McQueen is one of American cinema’s greatest directors of actors. Chiwetel Ojiofor as Northup seems destined for an Oscar, as a man combating the instinct to survive with the human need to resist indecency. The same can be said of Michael Fassbender who, as the brutal slave-breaker Epps, creates a turbulent inner desire to reconcile the ownership of human beings with his own crippling insecurities. But the performance of the film certainly belongs to Lupita Nyong’o, in a breakout performance as the formidable cotton-picker Patsy, who Epps repeatedly rapes and whips in exchange for exceptional harvest quotas. A late moment when Patsy sneaks off to acquire soap produces the film’s most powerful scene.

If “12 Years a Slave” raises any question, it may be whether slavery should be approached so directly in the cinema at all. McQueen’s effort seems to be to confront the reality that slavery ever happened here, that our nation, and indeed our race, ever participated in such an astonishing injustice. No shying away, no averting our eyes. This film is a visceral force-feeding. And really, what else could it be? McQueen is not telling us anything we do not already know, but he has certainly freshened it in our memories.

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